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The Jewish Day School/Yeshiva 2040: Dream, Vision and Reimagine (Part I)

 

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Background:

The amazing growth and development of our Jewish day schools is one of the most inspiring and successful phenomenon in contemporary Jewish history. To be sure, it has revolutionized Jewish education and Jewish literacy as never before imaginable.

This monumental success is due in large measure to increased levels of communal and parental commitment to Jewish identity, learning and literacy, thereby creating an explosive increase in pupil enrollment across all grade levels, a proliferation of new schools with beautiful state-of-the-art facilities, and an impressive array of diverse, innovative and creative cutting-edge curricula, complemented by new and creative teaching methods and pedagogy.

All of these advances have taken place against a backdrop of an extraordinary infusion of philanthropic investments and fundraising efforts on the local, regional and national levels. This support is derived from individual donors, foundations, federations, governmental funding and school advancement initiatives.

With the exception of the deepening teacher and professional leadership personnel crisis, Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot are currently enjoying and celebrating an amazing level of academic, religious and communal impact. Nevertheless, the challenge that still remains is how these institutions will thrive and attract high quality faculty and professional school leadership in the future.

The exponential growth and proliferation of adult Jewish leaning, Jewish knowledge, attitudes, involvement and behaviors on the part of most day school and yeshiva graduates are just several of the amazing outcomes attributed to day school graduates and to their experience in our day schools and yeshivot.

What began as a bold communal experiment at the turn of the century has now flourished into a remarkable success story. Who would have thought that with the establishment of the first Yeshiva in the early 1900’s that its growth and impact would be so monumental.

Today, we see a growing number of day school and yeshiva graduates who are college bound, and who continue their studies in American colleges and universities as well as in Israeli colleges and seminaries; they are pursuing professional careers following graduation, and many of these graduates are for the most part career oriented, have a deep, profound and sincere sense of authentic Jewish pride and identity; as well as an uncompromising commitment to religious belief, values and practice. This is in addition to their unswerving commitment to building Jewish community, promoting chesed, Jewish as well as non Jewish charities, and involvement in a host of  civic communal institutions. As a side, it has been posited  that since 1967, Day School and Yeshiva graduates comprise the majority of Americans who have successfully made aliyah to Israel.

In addition to the aforementioned accomplishments and milestones, the Day School/Yeshiva has produced a disproportionate number of the most outstanding Rabbinic leaders, Torah scholars, religious visionaries and communal leadership – all of whom add to the beauty, splendor and vibrancy of our Jewish community…… and, who are respected and emulated by other communities, and cultures throughout the world.

As we know, like in any any communal ecosystem, there are strong and there are weak institutions; there are those schools that posses and/or leverage required resources needed for their success, and those which can barely afford faculty salaries; there are day schools that have a full complement of high quality faculty and those that are struggling throughout the school year with under qualified teachers, and/or substitute teachers; and finally, there are those schools with strong and viable forward thinking lay and professional leadership and there are those with less than impressive management and governance experience.

Putting all of these attributes and differences to aside, when we paint the 21st century day school portrait of the future, in the aggregate, we see an institution which has proudly established itself as a formidable instrumentality positioned for amazing growth and success.

At the risk of sounding overly cautious about the future, one needs to ask the obvious – will this success as just described ever plateau? Is this a bubble? What will guarantee their future success? Or is it about continuing to do what we have been doing, expecting the same results? And finally, what will these schools look like in the future; and, what measures need to be undertaken today in order to help continue their future effectiveness and impact.

 The Future

As we know, no one can predict the future, nor can we forecast the future of these institutions with any degree of certainty. To do so, would be somewhat arrogant and foolish. At best, we can only ask ourselves, the what if scenario questions with the hope of anticipating future eventualities…lest we forget the unprecedented and unanticipated daunting impact of the COVID pandemic on our institutions, on our communities and on our lives.

So, as we think about the future, we need to wonder how these institutions will fair against a backdrop of new and evolving smart technology and scientific advances, economic exigencies, and changes in the physical (climactic) environment as well as the availability and composition of the teacher and professional leadership workforce. This is in addition to communal, familial and societal norms and standards which are continuously changing all around us at lightening speed.

It is important to note that not unlike public and other non public schools, our schools today, look the same for the last almost 80 years or more. Although technology has been successfully introduced into the classroom, including the use of smart boards, interactive computer feeds, the use of tablets and synchronous technological advances, the basic and fundamental methods of teaching Judaic and General Studies in our classrooms have essentially remained the same. To be sure, our students are still sitting behind traditional desks arranged in neatly spaced rows …..and, most of our teachers are still teaching by standing at the front of the class  facing these rows of desks.

I am not for one moment suggesting that this current reality is good, bad or indifferent. But, it is definitely a reality which is in sharp contrast to the ways in which all disciplines in society have changed dramatically with the exception for the manner in which we teach our children  – irrespective of our new knowledge regarding how our students actually learn best.

There are those who posit that if the institution is not broken, why fix it? or, why spend precious time being preoccupied with the future, when there are so many day school and yeshiva unmet needs and challenges that must be addressed today.

The response to these concerns are relatively straight forward. In order for our day schools to continue to be successful, the Jewish day school community, as a collective, must be mindful of the environment and educational ecosystem in which these schools reside; and that these environments (whether they be physical, educational, social or political) can and will change over time, on a dime. Some of these changes will be in our control…and others will be completely out of our sphere of influence.

This increased level of mindfulness is a clarion call in order for our Jewish day schools and yeshivot to continue to grow, flourish, maintain and create high levels of academic rigor and excellence, they must begin to grapple or come to grips with the future. This challenge will require comprehensive strategic planning and a shared vision which demands serious attention. To be sure, those select day schools and yeshivot that are preoccupied with their current and future viability are those that will have a major advantage over those that just focus on the present or rest on their laurels.

The following are select initiatives as they relate to the future of our Day Schools and Yeshivot. They include several strategic approaches and suggestions relating to the future of our physical plants, teaching personnel, classrooms, and financial resource development/advancement activities.

I have minimized the narrative description for each in light of limited space on this Blog. The remaining proposed areas of focus (marketing and communications, special student needs, academic assessments, strategic planning and  governance) will be addressed in Part Two of this Blog

The Physical (Bricks and Mortar) Plant:

One of the most critical aspects of effective schooling is the physical environment in which our students learn and teachers teach.

In the future, all classrooms will be reconfigured in order to be environmentally safe and conducive for effective teaching and learning.

As envisioned, our physical plants and their classrooms may require a totally different configuration than those that exist today. This includes state of the art lighting, ergonomically designed chairs and desks, computer benches, a continuous flow of fresh filtered air, sound attenuated classrooms, more open spaces as well as wiring for high speed internet, smart boards and other potential AI and/or VR technologies.

Besides for these obvious technological and bricks and mortar realities, depending upon geographic proximity, day schools may consider “physical plant consolidation or plant-sharing options”…..namely, the merging and/or sharing of physical space, so that smaller school facilities  can be merged or consolidated into larger physical school infrastructures.

The merging and/or consolidation of physical building spaces, although not a new concept, will not be an easy one and may be fraught with a variety of complex scheduling challenges. Nevertheless, it should create economies of scale in the use of sports and athletic fields, science labs, conference and meeting halls, dining areas, libraries, computer labs and select administrative offices, to name a few. Consideration may also be given to consolidating and sharing non-educational  back-office administrative activities and responsibilities.

It is obvious that in order for these relationships to succeed, there must be a high level of trust, respect and a shared vision between schools….the details and logistics of which require extensive review and conversation.

Teacher and Supervisory Personnel:

As indicated earlier in this Blog, and as I have written in numerous other posts, one of the most serious challenges facing our Day Schools and Yeshivot today and into the foreseeable future, is the paucity of high quality teachers (both in Judaic and General Studies) and the lack supervisory professional leadership.

The scope and magnitude of this challenge is so great that schools and communities are now hiring fewer qualified teachers with the hope that with proper intensive supervision and training, that they will develop into effective instructional staff.  Indeed a band aid solution to a major problem.

As schools and communities continue to grapple with this personnel/human resource challenge, they will be searching for short and long-term strategies and solutions.

One of the areas which deserves serious future consideration is the establishment of a Pooled Teachers Resource Bank.

As envisioned, the Resource Bank will afford part-time faculty the opportunity to pool their individual and collective talents and expertise with other part-time teachers. By doing so, they will be provided with the opportunity to develop full time portfolios by teaching in multiple schools within close geographic proximity.

Each school which comprise the system of schools will take responsibility for coordinating these efforts, as well as cost sharing of health benefits. But, ideally, the local central agency or another coordinating communal body should be mandated and engaged by the community to help organize and coordinate these efforts. This is a topic which also warrants a separate Blog post,

On a more system-wide communal level, it is hoped that by 2040, our Jewish educational communities will engage in a comprehensive systemic and systematic teacher recruitment and retention effort.

This effort may include the centralized sharing of resumes, creation of a suggested salary scales based on agreed upon criterion, group health insurance coverage and benefits packages as well as other financial incentives such as tuition remission for the children of faculty, sign-on bonuses, relocation stipends as well as special subsidies and incentives for  professional development, including degree granting programs and specialist certificates.

To be successful, these efforts must be competitive with other nonpublic, private and public schools; and should be designed and created via strategic partnerships between the local network of day schools and yeshivot, local federations and foundations. The precise organizational structure and  operational logistics required for these initiatives will of course require serious review and analysis.

Finally, it is interesting to note that this vision is a deja vu throwback to the role, purpose and function of the traditional central agency for Jewish education of the 1970’s. What goes around comes around.

As we move forward, addressing the future viability and success of our Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot in the absence of a comprehensive communal approach to teacher recruitment, engagement and retention will be like building a house without a foundation. The outcome is predictable.

The Classroom of the Future:

Much has been written  by educationalist and futurists about “the classroom of the future”. But, as we know, the unique nature of our Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot necessitates more circumspect and sensitivity regarding this challenge – especially in light of our community’s  awareness and concern about the potential uses and missuses of technology.

But, assuming  our classrooms of the future are equipped with the strongest filters and monitored WiFi hotpots possible, what kind of classroom of the future resonates best for our Day Schools and Yeshivot?

For starters, it is not unrealistic to think about these classrooms as student-centered individual learning centers with computer stations and VR platforms for the teaching of specific subjects. Each room will be equipped with hybrid immersive connectivity that would afford remediation or advanced teaching/learning as required. This will be particularly critical for children with exceptionalities.

Critical to the effective impact of these environments on teaching and learning, will be the need for wide open classroom spaces. Small cramped classrooms with traditional room set ups and student desk formations in rows will become a vision of the past.

As we begin to dream and imagine these new-age technologically driven and supported classrooms, we will need to be sensitive and mindful of our school’s unique characteristics as a place for traditional learning….and as a makom torah.

To this end, it will be essential for Judaic studies teachers to determine how  to utilize new formats and teaching modalities for teaching Judaic text as well as encouraging and facilitating chavruta learning.

Finally, as educational technology advances to levels of reliability and dependability, schools can begin to experiment with holographic and/or robotic instruction for mainstream instruction as well as for tutorials and remediation for weaker students. Again, these instructional modalities will never take the place of real time in-person teaching. But it will definitely help compliment and supplement in-person instruction.

One of the other advantages, will be the ability and capacity for our schools to engage guest lecturers, scholars and speakers from other communities (including Israel) in real time. This exposure to global talent has unlimited potential.

Financial Resource Development and Advancement:

As we know, reimagining the future of our day schools and yeshivot, will require a level of financial support and funding commensurate with the school’s future aspirations, vision and direction.

Some schools will create classrooms of the future with high tech capacity and capabilities. Others, will have a less ambitious approach and will opt to us technology more cautiously and deliberately. In addition, we also know that any improvement and/or enhancement of our personnel condition will require a significant infusion of dollars. This is over and above any funding for technology, physical plant improvements or other unmet day school needs.

In light of these realities, irrespective of  vision, dreams or aspirations, any ambitious state of the art investment in the future viability of Jewish day schools and yeshivot will require a significant  funding.

As envisioned the establishment of a Jewish Day School Foundation for the Jewish  Future might be considered. This Foundation would be comprised of a $500 million dollar endowment specially created and designed to match and offset initiatives which help promote and support Day School infrastructure, programs and initiatives. The Foundation will also endeavor to create a series of regional matching grant programs specifically earmarked for teacher recruitment, engagement and retention programs,

In order for this Foundation to be fully funded, philanthropic families, foundations, private foundations, donors and corporations will need to be engaged in the conversation. In the spirit of “people support what they help to create” the Foundation will be comprised of like-minded philanthropic leadership and professional thought-leaders who are passionately committed to the future vitality, viability and impact of the Jewish day school.

Conclusion:

As we dream, vision and reimagine the future of our day schools and yeshivot, it will be critically important to keep in mind that one size does not fit all. This means that we must always respect the hashkafa, philosophy, integrity and independence of each day school within our orbit. Some day schools may be ready and able to jump into the fray of the future; others will remain cautious. Remember, there is no right or wrong with regard to a day school’s preference, approach or desired trajectory.

Moreover, what works well for one segment of our Jewish Day school community, may not necessarily be the best fit for all. This understanding and respect for autonomy is paramount.

At the end of the day, as we envision the future of our day schools and Yeshivot, these institutions must pick and chose their future path and trajectory. This Blog is intended at best to present the wide array of select opportunities open to these schools; and, to provide the day school and yeshiva community with the variety of exciting options and meaningful possibilities.

The rest is in the hands of our Jewish Day schools and Yeshivot.

With best wishes for a Shana Tova U’metuka 

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is currently Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community Day School in Margate FL and Executive Coach and Consultant. He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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